"I communicate important things through light," renowned light artist Gerry Hofstetter

gerry hofstetter

Gerry Hofstetter is a globally renowned light artist who has created nearly 3,000 light installations in 87 countries over the last 25 years. He describes his work as missions for climate, peace, and Ukraine.

In February 2023, he traveled to Ukraine to support the Ukrainians on the anniversary of the war's beginning. Gerry considers this mission one of the best things he has ever done. Throughout his life, the artist has experienced various significant and colorful events. Mr. Hofstetter has been an investment banker, a helicopter pilot, and an Mountain Special Forces officer and has trained international Special Troops in CSAR Combat Search and Rescue. He also owns his own film company in Beverly Hills; finally, he is a world-famous light artist who travels to different countries with his light projects, aiming to make the world a better place.

Gerry's life story is about a person who follows the heart's call, strives to do what is important to him here and now, is not afraid of change, and realizes the most daring dreams in line with his values.

We spoke with the artist about his life, personal transformations, passion for creation, and mission in Ukraine.

Your life is a series of incredible changes and a combination of activities that, at first glance, seem incompatible: an investment banker, a helicopter pilot, an officer training special forces, a filmmaker, and, finally, a light artist. Can you tell us when you realized that you are an artist?

When I was 15 or 16, we had a farm with 20 horses owned by wealthy people we cared for and trained. And when I was a boy I always wanted to become like Van Gogh. I liked paintings with big heads against a rural landscape. So, one day, my parents gave me oil paints, a gardener's oversized hat, and my grandfather's old army coat from 1880. I looked like... I don't know, a lord of the rings. While sitting in the field and painting our farm, a famous woman from our region rode up to me on a horse. She asked if I could paint her horse. I looked at the horse, it was so big that I thought it would take me four weeks to paint it, so I said I could paint its head, as a character is in the head. Two weeks later, she came, saw the painting, was impressed, and immediately asked how much she should pay. I was 15 years old, and my monthly allowance was 100 francs. She gave me 4,000 francs. I must have looked dissatisfied because she thought I was unhappy and said she had friends - elderly ladies with horses. They would surely want such a painting. In the end, I painted 21 paintings over two years. And that's how I sold horses for 5,000 francs each (laughs).

That's when I realized that I had this creativity within me. I thank that lady because, thanks to her, I realized that you don't necessarily have to study. If you do something, you just need to know how to see and understand: birds, a cobbler, a battle, a soldier, a king, children... And when you understand the mechanics of anything, you don't have to learn. In creativity, everything should happen like this: you observe, immerse yourself, and then do it with your passion as you see it. I never studied painting... That's when I also realized that you should never change your thoughts and feelings. You should do what you like, even when someone offers you money to change something.

But I always wanted to become a helicopter pilot and a banker. So, I started with that.

Did you become a pilot first?

I was a vice president at an investment bank and served in the army. In Switzerland, every healthy man goes to the military. So, I served while working at the bank, where I received my salary. Every year until the age of 32, I served three and a half weeks, and then, until the age of 44, once every two years for two weeks. That's how I became a pilot and ended up in the special forces. Everyone wants to be an officer, but only one or two out of forty get selected. I managed to do it. The system has changed slightly, but it was like that back then.

When I was 32, I realized I had everything I needed and decided it was time to move on to something bigger that would bring better results for nature, people, companies, and countries.

I did a lot of things: I started my own marketing company, organized fashion shows, stayed in five-star hotels in St. Moritz, set up an ice rink in a restaurant where 90 models performed, and Brigitte Nielsen (Danish actress, model, and singer) skated while people dined. I also started making comics and films the way I wanted to.

One day, I realized that I wanted something that would make my events in hotels and castles much better. Something special which is going to touch the heart of the people. So, back in 2000, I designed light projects and immediately received many orders. But I said I was doing it for myself. Then I took a helicopter, placed a generator underneath it, opened the door, flew around the mountains and icebergs, and projected while another helicopter took photographs. It was an incredible pleasure!

So, the key thing is passion. You have many light projects all over the world. How did it all develop?

I m doing art light expeditions like a small Special Forces team - that's when a small team of three to eight people, including myself, would venture to the North Pole, the Arctic, Antarctica, deserts, the Himalayas to projections on buildings, monuments, or, for example, the rocks of the Navajo Indians in the USA. This is essentially what I'm still doing all over the world for the sake of climate, peace, and Ukraine so that people can live in peace together.

For instance, there was a request from government officials regarding an art performance für the Winter Olympic games in China in 2022. I proposed projecting the world's largest art canvas (5.3 kilometers) - a tiger on the Eiger mountain in Switzerland. We planned to display it for 20 seconds in February 2022, coinciding with the Year of the Tiger in China and the Winter Olympics. I also wrote in a press release that I wished all the athletes participating in the Olympic Games in Beijing to fight for medals like tigers. I pointed out that when we can protect tigers, which live in 13 countries with a population of 3,000 individuals, it means we have genuinely learned to protect everything on our planet passionately.

Impressive diplomacy and attention-grabbing art to promote tiger conservation! That's very powerful.

You understand correctly. Very powerful. When Ukrainian officials asked me what I could do for Ukraine in summer 2022, I decided to come to Ukraine first for Christmas, bringing light with my generator. Ukrainians lacked electricity, were freezing, couldn't charge their phones, and had no way to cook... I will bring light!

It was probably the second-best thing I've ever done in my life as a professional artist.

The first was the projection in 2003 when the UN asked, "What can we do about the ozone hole?" At that time, in 2002-2003, it had expanded the most. So, I decided to go to the South Pole, where penguins live, and project a polar bear found in the North Pole. It was a demonstration of what would happen when the climate changed drastically. Perhaps the polar bear would see a penguin, but we wouldn't be around anymore. It's not "Fata Morgana" but "Fata Antarctica." Imagine it was 2003 and UN Year of the water, and the internet wasn't widespread yet, but people heard and understood the message. It's one of the most powerful messages I've created for our planet, for climate change.

The second most important event was Ukraine. Due to shelling, there was no electricity, Christmas was approaching, and it was dark times. So, I decided to take my own money, my wife, my team, an filmer, and a photographer, and we went to bring Christmas light. The second trip in February 2023, the country still was under martial law, so I proposed starting in Lviv. First, spend one night there. On February 23, we would head to Kyiv. Exactly one year after the full-scale war began, we would make projections on various buildings, including a children's hospital. Then, immediately went to Odessa for two nights, where we would create one installation about war and another to celebrate UNESCO's decision (to grant UNESCO heritage status to the city center). Then, we would return to Kyiv and light up the city council, the Lavra, and the parliament building. Only after that, we would go home.

So, we covered 11,000 kilometers, eight nights, and projected on 28 buildings.

You prepared in such a short time!

Preparation is always very short, like three or four days. Sometimes, I have to send projectors by air or ship to India or the United States, which takes a long time. But here, two nights, I was already at the Ukrainian border with the police, waiting to organize an escort. Of course, it was a war situation and everything, but I'm a captain in special forces. So, I know what risks there could and couldn't be.

I wanted to ask if you were scared, but considering your military background, I decided not to...

You have to follow the basic principle: respect and analyze the situation. For example, it's absurd to go to Israel and Palestine. If you end up with a peace project, a sniper will shoot you. But in Ukraine, there's some control, it's relatively clear. This is the combat zone, that's Kyiv, where there might be a few drones and missiles. So, I knew everything would be fine as long as I followed the government's instructions. Then I asked my wife if she wanted to join me. Barbara is a university professor and dean, and she said, "Not really, but I know, leaving you alone is never a good idea" So, she joined me. (Laughs)

With such a rich and diverse background, how does it influence your current work?

Everything I've done in my life: sports, motocross, mountaineering, banking, helicopters, special forces, filmmaking - is reflected in what I'm doing now. I know how to finance, how to travel, how to train... All my knowledge is in my current work, an artful mix of ingredients which are helping me to realis this beautiful work of light art projections.

What are your plans for environmental projects?

There is one project. Once, I met a professor who specializes in glacier research and hydraulics. He told me that in 40 years, 80% of the glaciers will disappear, and 80% of the seas will have water levels two meters higher than today. According to the UN, 2025 will be the Year of Glacier’s Preservation. He asked if I could organize a world tour, covering all continents, to project the word "SOS" on glaciers of such enormous size that it could be photographed from space, from the International Space Station. This project is now in preparation. Right now, 

However, I realized that projecting an SOS message on all glaciers large enough to be seen from space can only be done from the top, which is possible only in the Himalayas and Switzerland. To ensure that the photograph taken from the International Space Station is readable, we must carry out the project here in Switzerland. However, the incredible and unprecedented documentary and climate impact will be achieved differently - we will travel through continents, create projects, film them, and then I will create an eight-episode television series about what is happening. After that, we will go to the United Nations and to the World Economic Forum to give speeches.

It will be grandiose. Who supports and finances your various projects? Is it mainly private donors who understand the importance of the issue?

Private donors. We communicate with institutions, foundations, and companies with substantial funding for addressing climate issues and private individuals. Many of them are in Switzerland. And the Ukrainian project was funded by me.

Well, who else would pay for such activities during a war? No one! The Ukrainian government? What can they do in these conditions? I said, "Alright." I will go and directly help bring light. It's very interesting and important. let’s bring hope to the Ukrainien people. 

How would you envision celebrating victory? The Light of Victory?

Why are you asking me this?

You know, if you project certain dreams, they come true...

It's already planned!

How wonderful!

People often say, "We can do something when we have peace." I said, "Yes!" But I also told the Speaker of the Parliament that I don't like it when you always talk about peace. You should talk about the Victory Tour! He understood what I meant. In reality, peace is the beginning of the next war. And we will do a Victory Tour in Ukraine! I will travel all over Ukraine for three or four months, visiting small towns, villages, and big cities and projecting.

Millions of Ukrainians will be happy! Do you feel like a happy person?

What is "happy"?

That's also a question.

In all world languages, happiness is a definition where our attitude confronts our position in the world, our personality, and what we do. Happiness is balance. Happiness is the freedom to be oneself. So, when asked if I am happy, I would say: I am happy because of what I do, but I am not happy with how people in the world live together.

So, the search for balance compels me to do what allows me to give something back for my own happiness. I'm not a priest. I'm just Gerry, trying to do something because I've been very fortunate in life, education, and travels, and therefore, I believe I can give something back. That's it. And as long as the sun shines, I can do that. We have only one planet to live together.


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